An Advent Reflection
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
First Sunday of Advent
November 13, 2011
Keeping Watch: the longer I live, the more I find that God lurks in the most curious places.
After I surprise myself by finding God where I didn’t expect God, I think it over, and realize that yes, actually, it does make sense that God would show himself there. This is the world he created after all—why should I think any shadow, nook, or mystery could escape his notice, or misplace his presence? God’s fingerprints are everywhere, if I look for them.
No corner of creation can hide from God, in the way that Waldo was never lost to the illustrator. Waldo only seemed lost to us when we cracked opened the pages of a Where’s Waldo picture book, and the pages exploded with color in our faces. Waldo was small and hidden to us, but not to Waldo’s creator. And just when we thought we’d found a page where Waldo was indeed truly missing, we’d give one final look and experience the joy of discovery all over. Quick, turn the page, let’s do it again.
Of course, Where’s Waldo was all fun and games, but when the Scriptures say, “Keep watch,” that’s a different story, right? I hear apocalyptic warnings like today’s with trepidation, an inner quiver, and an uncomfortable fear of the unknown.
The Sun will be darkened? The Moon will not give its light? The very stars will fall from the sky? Then how will I see???
The Heavenly Bodies will be shaken? Changes are scary, and the Bible paints a picture where nothing stays the same. Even the sun, the moon, and the stars, who have been unceasingly faithful since Creation, will betray us.
When I open texts like this, initially I cannot see past the explosion of odd images. Whatever beauty, whatever truth, whatever comfort is there remains small and hidden—not lost, but very difficult for the unadjusted eye to spot.
Unfortunately, when it comes to texts like these, some Christians dissect the images and offer up strange interpretations that only scare us worse, confuse the picture, and disguise our Hope. If you settle for the first trendy interpretation you can get our hands on, you’ll only end up with a set of lenses that blur the page and make your head spin. Tylenol can’t fix that kind of headache, Adderall won’t bring things into focus, and no pill can calm end times anxiety. You have to get a new set of glasses altogether.
Or, better yet, learn how to see in the dark.
Sit with mystery.
Explore the unknown corners of your universe.
Turn over rocks, crawl through caves,
scuba-dive your ocean depths.
In other words,
Live to explore and discover.
Don’t be afraid of the dark.
Darkness is a good place to hide,
to wait, to watch.
Like a baby in the womb,
growing strong and gaining nutrients.
God is there,
in the darkness,
when the sun is gone and the stars have fallen.
Darkness can mean something new is being born.
Madeleine L’Engle tells a story about how ancient people were terrified by the onset of the winter months because as the sun set earlier and earlier in the day and rose later and later every morning, the people feared the sun would finally desert them altogether and never return, leaving the earth in unrelenting night. Somewhere inside, you and I share that primitive fear. We read texts like these about the end of all days as we know it, which is described like a Great and Terrible Darkness, and we cannot help but feel nervous. L’Engle writes,
It was a long time before I could begin to think of this ending of all known things, all matter, the stars in their courses, music, laughter, sunrise, daises and dynasties, starfish and stars, suns and chrysanthemums, as being in any way something to look forward to with joy and hope. It was a long time before I could turn my thoughts to the eschaton without terror. Long before I’d heard about the atom bomb or the hydrogen bomb, or fission or fusion, I feared the end of the world in much the same way I fear a nuclear holocaust . . .
[And] the end of the world in the eschatological sense . . . is not just the end of this one planet, but of all the planets, all solar systems, all galaxies.
And what then? Is that it? Annihilation?
No. Annihilation might follow an intergalactic nuclear battle, but annihilation is the opposite of what the eschaton is about. It is not nearly so much a going as a coming, an ending as a beginning. It is the redemption, not the destruction, of Creation.*
A coming rather than a going, a beginning more than ending, redemption rather then destruction. The re-creation, renewal, restoration and redemption of everything. Suddenly, “Keep Watch” takes on new meaning.
But Christ hasn’t come in 2000 years, and what if it’s another 2000 before He does? The End with a capital E might be a long way off, but that doesn’t mean we should walk around with our eyes closed. Keeping watch is less about peering suspiciously around every corner for signs of the Second Coming and more about adopting a lifestyle and a way of seeing that delights in finding God in every unexpected nook.
The word to keep watch can set us on edge, as if the Second Coming might pop out from behind a common bush and startle us. I don’t know why exactly that always makes us so nervous—God has surprised us before, and we nearly always weep and dance for joy. Sure, it is disconcerting when an average bush can unsettle you by catching holy fire, but a burning bush is the kind of thing you can walk up to and talk with, if you take your shoes off. A bit of proper reverence and the sacred becomes approachable. A sideways glance with proper eyesight and the holy is made visible.
Jesus says, “Keep watch,” which is an active way of living and being and seeing, not a passive way of waiting around for the world to end or for heaven to sweep us home. Elizabeth Barring Browing reminds us that in the here and now, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; And only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.” My dear friends, keep watch. Yes,
In every nook
Let God surprise you.
The joys of discovery
Await even you.
And of the Second Coming?
They say not
even the angels of heaven
Nor the Son of Man
Knows the day or hour.
So fear not.
The whole universe will be surprised
And the whole universe will weep for joy.
Some of us will weep all the more
That we waited so long
To spot Him.
What if we had kept watch
From the beginning?
What wonders, what beauty
* Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 3.